By RICHARD ROSENBLATT, Associated Press
Bob Baffert's Arkansas Shuttle keeps rolling, likely carrying a couple of his 3-year-old colts to the Kentucky Derby in less than seven weeks.
The Hall of Fame trainer had another successful weekend at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., with Secret Circle winning the $500,000 Rebel Stakes by three-quarters of a length over fast-closing Optimizer on Saturday.
The bay colt will return to California this week but is scheduled to be shuttled back for the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 7 and shoot for an Oaklawn sweep. Secret Circle won the second division of the Southwest Stakes last month, and Baffert's Castaway won the first division.
Baffert has won the Rebel three years in a row — Lookin At Lucky won in 2010 and The Factor won last year — and improved his record at Oaklawn to an amazing 13 wins from 21 starts. In the last three years, his horses have won 10 of 13 starts.
With Secret Circle's fifth win in six starts, the colt moves up to No. 4 on the latest AP Run to the Roses Top 10 list of Derby contenders. Union Rags, Hansen and El Padrino remain 1-2-3 as they get ready for their final preps before the Derby on May 5.
"He's an unassuming horse when you watch him train, but he always shows up on the big days," three-time Derby winner Baffert said of Secret Circle.
He added that the colt showed him a new dimension by stalking the leaders instead of going straight for the lead.
"The win was exciting and the way he did it was promising," Baffert said. "It was a good schooling for him and I think he should get a lot out of it, although my guys tell me he was hardly blowing when he got back."
Bodemeister, second in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10 and headed next to the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, is No. 8 and gives Baffert a second horse in the AP Top 10. Castaway is set to run this weekend in the Sunland Derby.
Also impressing last week was Gemologist, trainer Todd Pletcher's unbeaten 3-year-old who won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Friday by seven lengths over Grade 1 stakes winner Currency Swap. Next stop on the bay colt's road to Louisville probably will be the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7. Gemologist stays at No. 5 this week.
"He came off the layoff with a great performance. He was amazing. He did it on his own. He did it so easy," Gemologist jockey Javier Castellano said. "I was very impressed; he did it the right way and he's heading in the right direction."
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas may have a Derby contender of his own in Optimizer, who just missed catching Secret Circle in the Rebel. Lukas is a four-time Derby winner, his last being Charismatic in 1999.
"We are real proud," Lukas said of his 27-1 long shot. "They only get longer and tougher from here."
1. Union Rags (Michael Matz, trainer; Julien Leparoux, jockey): Fountain of Youth (G2) winner worked 5 furlongs in 1:04 1/5 under Leparoux at Palm Meadows on Saturday. ... "Just a maintenance work," says Matz. ... Next start: Florida Derby (G1), Gulfstream, March 31. ... Derby future wager odds: 4-1.
2. Hansen (Mike Maker, Ramon Dominguez): Gotham (G3) winner worked 4 furlongs in 50 2/5 seconds at Churchill Downs trackside training center on Sunday. ... Next start: Wood Memorial (G1), Aqueduct, April 7. ... Odds: 9-1.
3. El Padrino (Todd Pletcher, Javier Castellano): Risen Star (G2) winner among Pletcher's many Derby hopefuls. ... Colt has won both starts in 2012. ... Next start: Florida Derby. ... Odds: 12-1.
4. Secret Circle (Bob Baffert, Rafael Bejarano): Showed versatility by stalking leaders before Rebel (G2) win. ... Has won 5 of 6 races, with only loss by a half-length in the Sham (G3). ... Next start: Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn, April 7. ... Odds: 37-1.
5. Gemologist (Pletcher, Castellano): Won long-awaited 3-year-old debut by seven lengths in an allowance race at Gulfstream on Friday. ... Improve to 4 of 4. ... Next start: Wood Memorial. ... Odds: 23-1.
6. Creative Cause (Mike Harrington, Joel Rosario): San Felipe (G2) winner may end up as top West Coast contender for Derby. ... Next start: Santa Anita Derby (G1), Santa Anita, April 7. ... Odds: 17-1.
7. Alpha (Kiaran McLaughlin, Dominguez): Withers (G3) winner worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.20 Saturday at Palm Meadows. Final Derby prep still not definite, but. ... Next start: Florida Derby. ... Odds: 18-1.
8. Bodemeister (Baffert, Bejarano): Named for Baffert's youngest son, Bode. ... A game second in San Felipe in third career start. ... Next start: Santa Anita Derby. ... Odds: 29-1.
9. Howe Great (Graham Motion, John Velazquez): ... Palm Beach (G3) winner is turf tested, but may wait until Derby for his test on dirt. ... Team Valor's Barry Irwin took a similar route with 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom ... Next start: Blue Grass (G1), Keeneland, April 14. ... Odds: 3-1 (mutuel field).
10. Mark Valeski (Larry Jones, Rosie Napravnik): Risen Star runner-up working toward final Derby prep at home base. ... Next start: Louisiana Derby (G1), Fair Grounds, April 1. ... Odds: 38-1.
Keep an eye on: Castaway, I'll Have Another, My Adonis, Optimizer, Take Charge Indy.
Follow Richard Rosenblatt on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/rosenblattap